InBloom, Gates’ student-data-in-the-Cloud program, fails, shutting down

The New York Times reports that the InBloom Student Data Repository created several years ago with $100 million in seed money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has run into fierce opposition in places like Louisiana, New York and Colorado from parents and others concerned about student data privacy. Opposition has become so fierce that InBloom will shut down completely.

InBloom’s extensive data collection set, which sounds similar to the federal Next Education Data Model (both feature over 400 data items), raised lots of eyebrows. According to the Times and information in InBloom’s own web site, some of those data points could include:

• Family relationships (“foster parent” or “father’s significant other”),
• Reasons for enrollment changes (“withdrawn due to illness” or “leaving school as a victim of a serious violent incident”),
• Student social security numbers (a huge magnet for identity thieves),
• Details on arrests and in-school violations of behavior codes, including the type of weapon, if used and
• Disabilities listing.

Parents objected that they didn’t want such sensitive information provided to third-party vendor organizations like InBloom.

InBloom intended to provide lots of data analysis to teachers, supposedly to help teach better, but questions arose as to the likely accuracy and appropriateness of some of the analysis.

Kentucky considered InBloom at one point but never joined that system. However, Kentucky uses a similar web-based student data repository called Infinite Campus which may collect much of the same data as InBloom did. There is growing unease about the protection and privacy of that data system as evidenced by the introduction of Senate Bill 224 in the past legislative session, which would have added considerable protection for Kentucky’s student data. That bill only received a hearing in the Senate Education Committee, however.

Now, with InBloom shutting its doors despite its multi-million-dollar sponsorship by one of the digital computer world’s leading titans, questions regarding Infinite Campus may become an increasing concern in the Bluegrass State.

Retiring lawmaker defends secretive state-budget process

spot-light-mdRep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, is one of several lawmakers who have decided not to run for reelection this fall.

In a recent interview with “Pure Politics,” Stacy, who has served in the General Assembly since 1993, defended the current practice of Frankfort’s political leadership meeting behind closed doors while “horse trading” (our term, not Stacy’s) during the most critical part of the state budget process.

“It seems to be easier to get it done – to hammer out the details and then present — at least the plan piecemeal part by part — when you can talk frankly, off the record, and then come forward and present part by part by part and build that budget that way,”  Stacy said.

A lack of transparency in the budget process certainly may be “easier” for the politicians as they spend taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars, but is it really in the best interest of those same taxpayers not to have access to how spending decisions are made?

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman once said that there are four ways to spend money:

* You can spend your money on yourself. This ensures that you both “watch what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money,” Friedman said.

* You can spend your money on someone else. He used a birthday gift as an example. “I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost.

* You can spend someone else’s money on yourself. “Then I’m sure to have a good lunch!” Friedman said.

* You can spend someone else’s money on yet someone else. The opportunity for mischief is the greatest. “Then,” as Friedman said, “I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government.”

Friedman also noted that when someone (government) spends other people’s (taxpayers’) money to buy something for yet someone else (government programs), the connection between the earner, spender and recipient is the most remote “and the potential for mischief and waste is the greatest” among his four stated ways of spending.

That’s why transparency is needed throughout the entire budget process.

When closed doors and armed guards literally shut those paying the bills out of the process, the potential increases exponentially for “mischief and waste.”

Bluegrass Beacon…Enquiring Kentucky minds want to know: What’s going on in those secret budget discussions?

BluegrassBeaconLogoLawmakers fulfilled their primary constitutional duty by agreeing on a $20.3 billion budget. Still, plenty of unanswered questions remain about the manner in which they arrived at those spending decisions:

  • Why don’t the leaders in the House of Representatives give members more time to sufficiently consider their vote on the state budget?

“When there’s doubt in my mind about what a budget contains, I tend to vote ‘no,’” said Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, one of 11 legislators in the Kentucky House who voted against the new budget.

Considering that legislators’ chief responsibility is to pass a budget, why is it that once again, the budget conference committee, which is comprised of representatives from both the House and Senate, pulled an all-nighter toward the very end of the session when they have had several months to work on the task?

Fischer protested that the final budget draft worked out by the conference committee was made available for consideration “only about 30 minutes before we had to vote.”

  • If, as aphorist Mason Cooley said, “procrastination makes easy things hard and hard things harder,” why not speed up the budget-deciding process?

The responsibility for this problem lies at the feet of the Democratic leaders as the majority party in the House.

Isn’t having the entire first quarter of the calendar year more than enough time to figure out how to get the budget done in a manner that allows members to cast an informed, conscientious vote? Well, of course it is.

I’m not pointing partisan fingers here.

The state’s Democratic governor did his job by fulfilling his constitutional duty to submit a budget proposal to lawmakers toward the beginning of the session. If the House would have moved in a timely manner on the Republican Senate’s version, then the bipartisan budget conference committee could have had sufficient time to negotiate and get a final draft into the hands of the people’s representatives for due consideration.

“It’s not a good process,” Fischer said. “They need to at least complete the budget draft with both houses reviewing it and then get it to us with at least two weeks left in the session so that negotiations can be completed in a timely manner and we can have a pretty good idea of what’s in there.”

That sounds reasonable to most Kentuckians. The problem is politics.

With the filing deadline for political opponents during this election not coming until the end of January – and especially with Democrats concerned about retaining control of the House – that party’s leadership dragged its proverbial feet on the budget. As a result, Fischer said he’s “still not quite sure what the financial picture looks like.”

He said he’s still trying to get concrete information about the size of the state’ debt ratio in the new budget.

“I think this budget takes it up to 6.75 percent, which is significantly above what the ratings agencies want to see,” Fischer said. “We’re the third-worst rated state as far as bond rating in the nation, and this could make the situation worse.”

  • Why are the most important decisions involving the state budget still made behind closed doors?

Both conservatives and big-spending leftists have expressed concerns about decisions made in this budget. Both should call for more transparency – when it matters, which is when the conference committee meets to hash out its final spending plan.

Progressives wonder how last-minute decisions were made to give tax breaks for certain industries while conservatives wonder if there was serious consideration given to the state’s financial future.

If conference committee discussions related to the budget were done in the public’s eye, we might not only get better answers to these questions, but better decisions might also be made with taxpayer dollars.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.

Interesting squabble over Kentucky’s education history playing out in the Herald-Leader

There is an interesting back-and-forth going on in the Herald-Leader about the impacts of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.

First to chime off was Nina McCoy, who teaches biology, anatomy and physiology at Sheldon Clark High School in Inez. She is a nationally board certified teacher with 30 years of experience. In other words, she has the long-term experience and the smarts to be worth listening to.

McCoy points out that KERA’s passage presented Kentucky with an important opportunity. But, she says:
“Unfortunately that opportunity was squandered by lack of focused vision.”

She cites a litany of failed KERA education fad ideas such as:
• Ungraded primary,
• Math and writing portfolios,
• Performance tasks,
• Open-response tests,
• Outcome-based education, and
• School councils.

This won’t be news to any of our more seasoned readers. We discussed essentially the same in our 20-Year history of KERA.

However, McCoy’s Op-Ed struck an easily irritated nerve in retiring associate executive director for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence Cindy Heine.

Prichard, of course, was a major player in the passage of KERA back in 1990 and pushed many of the education fad ideas that McCoy says didn’t work.

In her call to “stop wasting time complaining about how we got here,” Heine lists what she claims are positive outcomes since the reform began such as:

• Eliminating nepotism,
• Insuring school board members at least had a high school education,
• Focusing on what students learn, not just on whether the material was presented,
• More technology,
• Enhanced preschool opportunities,
• Family resource and youth services centers,
• More professional development, and
• Money for a new equalized funding formula.

While some of these certainly are positives, none deal with improved student performance.

Heine also touches on student performance, however, and this is where she runs into problems.

Without naming her source, Heine cites a poorly done study that claimed Kentucky’s student performance rose from 48th in the nation in 1990 to 33rd in 2009.

In fact, the dubious report citing those figures was produced in 2011 by UK’s Center for Business and Economic Research. I have written about problems with the report before, and you can read about that here.

In any event, Ms. Heine is going to have a hard time selling her claims of Kentucky’s education system’s progress compared to other states. The unfortunate truth is that the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that whites in all the states shown in green on this map outscored Kentucky’s whites on eighth grade math in 2013. In fact, Kentucky’s white students, who make up about 80 percent of the state’s entire public school enrollment, only outscored whites in one other state, West Virginia, by a statistically significant amount on that test. That’s all.

NAEP Comparison Map G8 Math

So, while I would agree that Kentucky’s education has made a little headway since 1990, I think it is highly misleading to make the sorts of claims that Ms. Heine just made.

I suspect Ms. McCoy would agree that a whole lot more needs to be done before Kentucky’s education begins to really deliver on the promises, and the extra funding, of KERA in 1990. Furthermore, chasing unproved education fads like fuzzy math again thanks to the stimulus of the Common Core State Standards is, as we saw before, no way to make such improvement happen.

Education Week: ‘Prominent Ed-Tech Players’ Data-Privacy Policies Attract Scrutiny’

Hacked School Database Graphic

In a lengthy article, Education Week shares growing concerns that student data security and sharing is highly problematic. The newspaper asked two data security experts to look at policies for three leading student data suppliers, and the findings were certainly disturbing. Some issues include:

• Use of tracking and surveillance technologies that allow third parties to gather information on students;
• Questions about the collection, use, and sharing of massive amounts of student “metadata”; and
• Criticism of the growing burden on students and families, who experts maintain are being forced to navigate an ever-shifting maze of dense vendor policies on their own.

One of the researchers says one data firm’s policies allow:

• “‘almost limitless’ sharing of student information with third parties.”

Another firm was criticized for:

• “Use of ‘cookies,’ relationships with third-party partners, and handling of the metadata.”

Sadly, Kentucky may be well behind on legal requirements for the generation and handling of sensitive student data.

A bill was introduced in the state senate (SB-224) that would address some of those education data problems, but it only got a hearing without any vote.

Another data bill, House Bill 5 was enacted, but it primarily deals with inadvertent or criminally related data security breaches and is in general for everyone, adults and children. I am not sure if this bill adequately addresses specific, student related issues for education data situations such as those identified by EdWeek.

On the air: BIPPS president Jim Waters on ‘Kentucky Tonight’…tonight!

Join Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters tonight on KET’s Kentucky Tonight at 8 p.m.

Jim joins host Bill Goodman a panel of guests discussing the 2014 session of the Kentucky General Assembly. Also appearing will be Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates; Dave Adkisson, president and chief executive officer of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; and Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Watch the hour-long show live on KET and at www.ket.org/live.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to kytonight@ket.org or use the message form at www.ket.org/kytonight. Viewers may also submit questions and comments on Twitter @BillKET, #kytonight, or on KET’s Facebook page. All messages should include first and last name and town or county.

Plan to call in during the program with your comments and questions at 1-800-494-7605.

Kentucky Tonight programs are archived online, made available via podcast, and rebroadcast on KET, KET KY, and radio.

Help the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions continue to advance freedom and prosperity by promoting freemarket capitalism, smaller government, and the defense of personal liberties. Join us!

Who is watching all those education tax dollars?

Kentucky auditor says, “School finance officers across Kentucky may lack skills for their jobs

A new report from a new news agency, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KYCIR), says Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen says there are serious qualification short-comings in many finance officers in Kentucky’s public school districts. A study recently completed by the auditor found:

● One-third of the commonwealth’s school finance officers don’t have college degrees in accounting or a finance-related field. Those 58 districts represent more than $1.3 billion a year in spending.

● In more than 20 percent of districts, finance officers don’t have a bachelor’s degree in any subject at all.

● Their work experience varies widely. Of Kentucky’s 173 school districts, 33 have finance officers who are former teachers, principals or superintendents. Of those, 18 have no previous financial or accounting experience or education.

● Less than half reported obtaining a finance-related certification.

The shortcomings of district financial people have had important, negative consequences for our students. The KYCIR discusses how the Monticello Independent School District misspent money intended for payroll on property, instead. By December there was no money left to cover staff salaries and the state had to move in with emergency funding to keep the district operating.

For some time the Bluegrass Institute has raised questions about the efficient use of school dollars. Clearly, a starting point for that must be fully qualified financial people to direct the billions of dollars Kentucky currently spends on public education.

Hats off to the auditor’s office for another important study!

And, a hearty welcome to the one-month old KYCIR group which was the first to pick up on this important story.

‘Obama Administration Plans to Make CCSS Permanent and Mandatory’

I want to stress at the outset that I didn’t come up with this title about the latest federal move regarding the Common Core State Standards. This comes from a blog written by the well-known liberal education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch.

She is no conservative!

However, Ravitch is actually picking up on – and agreeing with – comments from the conservative CATO Institute about how the Obama administration wants to make CCSS a permanent part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The blog says the Obama folks want to change the operation of the ESEA to a focus on “College- and Career-Ready Students.”

Ravitch says the original ESEA:

“…was intended to distribute federal aid to schools that enroll poor kids, no conditions attached. The funding is based on a formula tied to need, not a competition. Using it to cement CCSS into every school would be a travesty and a misuse of federal power.”

Ravitch closes with this thought about the nation’s poor students:

“They need equitable resources more than they need the untested CCSS.”

So it looks like federal entanglements involving CCSS continue to grow, and one of the amazing things is that both liberals and conservatives are concerned by what both view as a federal overreach.

Bluegrass Institute’s and the education commissioner’s current thinking on education standards

BIPPS staffers have been speaking around the state about our observations on the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards and thought it was time to pull some overall thoughts together for our blog readers.

You can find our full statement on education standards including the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in this freedomkentucky.org Wiki item, but here is a quick overview:

While the CCSS probably established an improved starting point for Kentucky’s educational system, it is becoming clear that our students will “need more than Core.” However, due to the fact that the standards are copyrighted by Washington, DC organizations beyond the control of Kentucky, it is unclear how we can modify the standards to better meet our students’ needs. Still, it would be desirable, if possible, for us to use the CCSS as a “model, but not a mandate.” Ultimately, it is Kentucky’s job, not Washington’s, to produce the educational programs our students need, and the Bluegrass Institute favors a state-led approach to meeting that responsibility.

By the way, it looks like Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education now recognizes that the Kentucky implementation of CCSS and NGSS needs work. He announced a program this week that will “ask Kentuckians to review state academic standards and suggest revisions,” according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Holliday continued:

“We’re going to challenge Kentuckians to read the standards. It’s time to start looking at the standards and tweaking them based on feedback.”

He indicated that feedback would be solicited from parents, business leaders, teachers and others.

Thus, Holliday is implying that, despite the copyrights held by Washington, DC groups on both the CCSS and the NGSS, he thinks Kentucky can move forward and make changes, anyway. It will be interesting to see if this is actually possible.

Another statewide “charter school” sneaking in under the radar??

It looks like a second, statewide charter-like school is about to open, this time on the campus of Morehead State University.

The new school at Morehead, the Craft Academy for Excellence in Science and Mathematics, will offer a resident campus for top-performing high school juniors and seniors, much like an existing school at Western Kentucky University. While enrollment will be small (about 60 students per class), the new Morehead school will slightly improve chances for top-performing students across the commonwealth to get a really good public education they need but cannot find in their local school system. Funded by a combination of state and private grants, the Craft Academy could be well-positioned to offer competition to Kentucky’s existing statewide “charter-like magnet, the Gatton Academy at Western Kentucky University.

So, my big question is, why doesn’t every public university in Kentucky have a similar program? Right now college professors tell me many students attend schools that don’t even offer all the courses needed to enter careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Why should a student’s place of residence essentially eliminate their opportunity to do something demanding with their lives? I’m thrilled that sixty more kids a year will get that opportunity, but with class sizes running around 45,000 or so in Kentucky, we clearly are not tapping anything close to the amazing potential in our state’s young citizens.

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